Socially Engaged Design Practice

»Remember that things can always be imagined and done differently« is one of the mottos that accompany the design collective Brave New Alps , Bianca Elzenbaumer and Fabio Franz, in their work on the project Precarity Pilot, which explores issues of precarious work within creative industries and is presented together with the artist Caterina Giuliani at Akademie Schloss Solitude. In trying to show how designers can activate their skills, creativity, and practices to create economic cultures that may change the status quo of the new precariat of this creative class, they established an online-platform all over Europe. But walking the line between self-organization and neoliberal self-management can be tricky. In an interview, both give insight into their thoughts and practices, not forgetting about the »dark side.«

Can you explain the project »Precarity Pilot« and where it started? Who is the precariat and what is the status quo you are dealing with?

Precarity Pilot engages in – hopefully – transformative ways with the precarious working conditions of designers. Starting from the observation that conditions such as poor pay, bulimic work patterns, and no social security have become pervasive within the creative industries, we open up spaces in which to collectively explore these conditions and their causes, while also exploring other ways of working and organizing that allow for more empowering situations to be created. In creating these spaces, Precarity Pilot takes the form of workshops throughout different places in Europe and an online platform, where we gather practical and conceptual tools that practitioners can activate.

In engaging with designers we are clearly not working with the most vulnerable segment of the precariat. But we are engaging with a situation within which we see the possibility to radically transform a profession, which at the moment sits problematically within a commercial landscape that actively fosters socially and environmentally detrimental practices and imaginaries. So, we also explore how designers can activate their skills, creativity, and practices to create economic cultures that are transformative of the status quo and lead towards progressive social change

Thinking about the pedagogical approach of the project, what is the »pilot« about? What are the ways of thinking or tools you teach? Can you give examples?

We run the Precarity Pilot workshops with a strong interest in supporting socially engaged design practice and with a desire to engage participants in unraveling the politics of design. So although we come to each workshop with a wide range of examples and tools to share, we also set the workshops up so that the participants’ approaches and experiences are valued and activated. As Precarity Pilot travels to different European contexts, it is important for us to stay open to local contingencies and constraints as these will necessarily form parameters with which possibilities of less precarious work need to be in conversation. Thus, we have two interlinked mottos that accompany us in our endeavor. The first is by feminist economic geographers J.K. Gibson-Graham: »Treat the existing situation as a (problematic) resource for projects of becoming, a place from which to build something more desirable in the future.« The second comes from our own experience: »Remember that things can always be imagined and done differently.«

Being an independent, freelance worker of the creative class today means, like for many, dealing with difficult working conditions. The so-called sharing economy is just another child of the capitalistic system, blurring the lines between freedom and self-slavery. How do you walk the line between self-organization and the neoliberal discourse?

Walking the line between self-organization and neoliberal self-management is often really tricky, especially because neoliberal modes of thinking and acting have become so pervasive. When does working as a collective become a mere tool for being more successful in the generalized rat race, rather than a means for subverting it? When does planning and organizing your time become a mere tool for increased productivity, rather than a tool to give yourself and others time to live and care outside the demands of the market? Given the trickiness of these situations, in the workshops and on the online platform it is always important for us to frame our proposals and discussions in ways that also questions what their »dark side« can be. Moreover, we find it important to ask wider questions about the field of design – questions that are not only concerned with the precarious conditions of those already within the field, but also, for instance, why it is that design is almost exclusively a domain of white kids from middle class backgrounds and what effects this has on the worlds designers contribute to create.

What are the next steps of Precarity Pilot?

In the very close future, we are running workshops in Leeds, Ljubljana, Milan, and Porto. Having concluded these workshops, we will take a break to reflect and elaborate on the materials generated in order to get a better grasp of what has been covered so far; which methods and tools work and which don’t; but also what unexpected issues and potentials have emerged that can be developed further. Overall, Precarity Pilot is a project we see running over several years as the transformations we desire are not quick and easy to achieve, but it might well be that over time the project morphs into another form in order to keep up with its times.